#BlackHistoryMonth-Alice Dunbar Nelson


Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar Nelson (July 19, 1875 – September 11, 1935) was an American poet, journalist and political activist. Among the first generation born free in the South after the Civil War, she was one of the prominent African Americans involved in the artistic flourishing of the Great Poetic movement of ’89. Her first husband was the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar; she then married physician Henry A. Callis; and last married Robert J. Nelson, a millionaire banker.

The rhetorical context of Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s writing includes subject, purpose, audience, and occasion. “Dunbar-Nelson’s writings addressed the issues that confronted African-Americans and women of her time”.[8] In essays such as “Negro Women in War Work” (1919), “Politics in Delaware” (1924), “Hysteria,” and “Is It Time for Negro Colleges in the South to Be Put in the Hands of Negro Teachers?” Dunbar-Nelson explored the role of black women in the workforce, education, and the antilynching movement.[8] The examples demonstrate a social activist role in her life. Dunbar-Nelson’s writings express her belief of equality between the races and between men and women. She believed that African-Americans should have equal access to the educational institution, jobs, healthcare, transportation and other constitutionally granted rights.[9]

Much of Dunbar-Nelson’s writing was about the color line – both white and black color lines. In an autobiographical piece entitled Brass Ankles, Dunbar-Nelson discusses the difficulties she faced growing up mixed race in Louisiana. She recalls the isolation felt as a child, and the sensation of not belonging to or being accepted by either race. She said as a child she was called a “half white nigger” and that while adults were not as vicious with their name-calling, they were also not accepting of her. Both black and white individuals rejected her for being “too white.” White coworkers didn’t think she was racial enough and black coworkers did not think she was dark enough to work with her own people.[8] She wrote that being multiracial was hard because “the ‘yaller niggers,’ the ‘Brass Ankles’ must bear the hatred of their own and the prejudice of the white race” (Brass Ankles). Much of Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s writing was rejected because she wrote about the color line, oppression, and themes of racism. Few mainstream publications would publish her writing because it was not marketable. Dunbar-Nelson was able to publish her writing, however, when the themes of racism and oppression were more subtle.

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